Piscataway is one of several New Jersey municipalities still holding public meetings remotely nearly three years into the COVID-19 pandemic. While some Piscataway council members sit in the council chambers for the Zoom call, others sign in for the meeting from home. And the public can only watch or listen online or on the phone.
Some residents in the Middlesex County township say returning to in-person municipal meetings is long overdue.
Local government experts are divided over which form of meetings — virtual or in-person — is more accessible to the public. Marc Pfeiffer, the assistant director at the Bloustein Local Government Research Center at Rutgers University, said he’s on the fence.
Virtual meetings lack the opportunity for personal contact between residents and their elected officials, Pfeiffer said. But, a remote meeting increases the number of residents who can participate on their computers or by phone, he said.
“They don’t have to be at a specific place at a specific time … So, in some ways that is an improvement on democracy,” Pfeiffer said. “I think both of these arguments are equally valid.”
Pfeiffer, the assistant director of the local government research center at Rutgers, said a hybrid format is “not a bad solution,” but still presents some challenges.
“A smaller municipality might not be able to afford the technology,” Pfeiffer said. “And it’s not just buying the technology, but it’s maintaining it and having people run it during the meetings.”
The best option may come down to community preference, Pfeiffer said.
“It’s not a matter of a right way and a wrong way,” he said. “It’s not an easy decision no matter what.”
Marc Pfeiffer, is a Faculty Researcher at CUPR